If Pennsylvania’s Drinking Age Were Lower, Timothy Piazza Would Be Alive

When alcohol is taboo, it takes on outsized importance in young people's lives.

Penn State's Beta Theta Pi fraternity house via Google Maps

Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity house via Google Maps

I have a niece who is British. A couple of years ago she visited and stayed with my daughter, who attends a large out-of-state university. Both had a great time together. But when I asked my niece what she thought of the social scene at my daughter’s college, her response wasn’t as great — in fact, she was kind of shocked. “The Americans drink way too much,” she told me. “It’s like their whole life revolves around alcohol.” My niece was 19 years old at the time.

Setting aside some Muslim countries where drinking isn’t allowed at all, the drinking age in the United States is, at 21, among the highest in the world. It wasn’t always like this. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a push to reduce the drinking age to 18 to coincide with the draft age and the recently lowered voting age. Those were the days of Vietnam, and the sentiment was Hey, if you’re old enough to risk your life in a firefight, you’re old enough to have a beer afterward.

A few years after the war (and the draft) ended, an anti-drunk-driving coalition gained steam and many organizations, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, used their growing political clout to lobby for a raised national minimum drinking age in the hopes of reducing alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In 1984 the National Minimum Legal Drinking Act was passed, taking federal funding away from states that refused to raise their drinking age to 21. Most states quickly complied. (Pennsylvania’s drinking age, perhaps reflecting the state’s Quaker heritage, had remained at 21.)

Did the National Minimum Legal Drinking Act reduce the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities? That’s certainly debatable. But, to me, one thing’s for sure — it significantly contributed to the death of Timothy Piazza in February.

Piazza, a pledge at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, drank too much alcohol while partying there – and died from internal injuries after falling. On Friday, 18 members of Piazza’s fraternity were deemed to be complicit in the freshman’s death because they not only allegedly provided the underage student with alcohol, but according to surveillance footage also ignored signs of his distress. What gives pause to any parent (like me) with college-age students is that these kids — Piazza and his fraternity brothers — are all our kids. This could easily have happened to any us. Why? Because, when it comes to alcohol, my kids are idiots. And so are yours.

I have three college-age kids. Like yours, they’re good kids. But when they come home on break, they regale us with their stupid-drinking stories — the games, the tailgates, the parties, the funny (and terrifying) tales of fellow classmates who did crazy things under the influence. This didn’t just start in college, by the way. I’ve learned that my kids procured alcohol while at their Lower Merion schools just as easily as buying groceries. Don’t pretend that your kids didn’t do the same. They did and they do. My wife and I look at each and other say “Thank f-ing God nothing bad happened.” But it is just luck. Unfortunately, Timothy Piazza’s parents were not as lucky as the rest of us.

The drinking age in Pennsylvania causes this. It makes alcohol taboo, which in turn makes it more attractive. It creates a binge-drinking environment. It contributes to sexual harassment and assault and fuels the use of drugs. It spawns movies like Old School and Animal House, which, though hilarious, also gives a nod and a wink to crazy, excessive, dangerous college-drinking escapades.

Do we hear of these same stories in European countries where the age is as low as 14 or 16? Sure, my niece and her friends in England get drunk. They are no more or less idiotic than my kids. But the university students there aren’t as much consumed by the act of drinking mass quantities of alcohol as their fellow students here in the U.S. Why? Because it’s not that big a deal! They’re used to having alcohol around them. They can have a drink when they want. They don’t need to play drinking games, chug beers, or suck down funnels of forbidden liquid to prove that they’re adults.

“Learning how to drink responsibly is a basic lesson in growing up — as it is in wine-drinking France or in Germany, with its family-oriented beer gardens and festivals,” University of the Arts professor and author Camille Paglia wrote a few years ago in Time Magazine. “This civilized practice descends from antiquity.”

Unfortunately, our country’s drinking laws are out of touch and in contradiction to this history. And there will be more young victims like Timothy Piazza until they’re changed.

Gene Marks, CPA, runs a ten-person technology consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd. He writes daily for the Washington Post and weekly for Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, and the Huffington Post.